Bits of Books - Books by Title


A Rich History

Peter McNeil and Giorgio Riello

More books on Money

"Luxury" can be a slippery concept. The Queen lives in palaces with hundreds of servants, travels first class, has a fortune in jewels and art, and wears expensive clothes. Yet no-one thinks she should live in a state house and buy clothes at Top Shop. But a pop star who behaved in the same way would be regarded as hopelessly extravagant,

New luxury goods have always upset traditionalists. When Chinese and Japanese lacquered paintings became fashionable, they were attacked not just by art purists, but by moralists who associated the East with licentiousness.

Coffee originally (C17) an expensive luxury item, drunk at home. But by late 1700's it had percolated down to the masses and become a common beverage.

Today fakes sneered at, but C18 it was opposite. Wood was stained or painted to resemble marble or jasper; trompe l'oeil effects prized. Believed that real stone or coral lacked real beauty, even though widely available. Expensive Oriental porcelains would be married to bronze, brass or carved wooden bases and surrounds, all designed to appeal to top of the market. Hired a marchand-mercier to co-ordinate all the specialists required, and to maintain and repair the goods they produced. Basically the first interior decorators.

The first purpose-built shopping arcade, the Palais Royale, luxury shops adjacent to the Tuileries Gardens. The style of decorative jewelry (bijoute-rie) is still called 'Palais Royale' in the antiques trade.

Paradox that the two major revolutions of last 250 years have done so much to shape luxury tastes by releasing large quantities of luxury goods of royal and aristocrat provenance. After the 1789 French Revn other European royals snapped cheaply up much of the goods auctioned, but it was only toward end of C19 that the highly decorated stuff became highly sought after. (This was the Gilded Age that Mark Twain et al recorded - post Civil War nouveau riche Americans spending up large on European culture. A similar process followed the Russian Revn with a series of famous sales in 1930's.

Helena Rubinstein, diminutive at 4 ft. 10 in. (147 cm), emigrated from Poland to Australia in 1902, with no money and little English. Her stylish clothes and milky complexion did not pass unnoticed among the town's ladies, however, and she soon found enthusiastic buyers for the jars of beauty cream in her luggage. She spotted a market where she began to make her own. Fortunately for Rubinstein, a key ingredient of the cream, lanolin, was readily at hand. After a stint as a bush governess, began waitressing at the Winter Garden tearooms in Melbourne. There, she found an admirer willing to stump up the funds to launch her Crème Valaze, supposedly including herbs imported "from the Carpathian Mountains". Costing ten pence and selling for six shillings, it walked off the shelves as fast as she could pack it in pots. Sydney was next, and within five years Australian operations were profitable enough to finance a Salon de Beauté Valaze in London. As such, Rubinstein formed one of the world's first cosmetic companies. Her business enterprise proved immensely successful and later in life, she used her enormous wealth to support charitable institutions in the fields of education, art and health. In 1908, with $100,000, Rubinstein moved to London and began what was to become an international enterprise. (Women at this time could not obtain bank loans, so the money was her own.)

'Dollar Princesses' - rich American heiresses married off to European titles (and European aristocratic ladies married off to rich Americans). So many wealthy Americans arrived that a magazine Titled Americans was published. Gertrude Vanderbilt's "it takes 3 generations to wash off the smell of oil, and two generations to exterminate the smell of hogs."

Ansonia Hotel in NY, which cost $6 million to build in 1904. 1400 rooms and 340 suites. Hot, cold and iced running water. In summer, freezing brine pumped through the walls to cool the building. Each suite had set of 18 table linens, which were changed three times a day, along with the soap and the stationery. A farm on the roof supplied fresh eggs and milk. It also had the world's largest indoor swimming pool. (In later years, when the hotel became rundown, this became the infamous gay bathhouse, the Continental Baths).

We now live in a rather anodyne world, where eccentricity is not well regarded. Women no longer walk black pigs with gilded trotters in Central Park; men don't die their doves rainbow colors for dinner parties.

Wealthy social climber Dame Margaret Greville ('Mrs Ronnie') retained an infamous butler who was often drunk. Once, at dinner, she passed him a note saying "You are drunk. Leave the room at once" which he proceeded to pass to one of the male guests on a silver salver.

Elsie de Wolfe (later Lady Mendl) was one of the first (1905) to describe herself as an interior designer, and probably the first woman to make a million dollars from a personal business she had not inherited.

Costume balls a place for the rich to flaunt their wealth without limit. People dressed as gods, or from famous paintings.

Coco Chanel pushed idea of chic - style that did not necessarily mean expense. She preferred artificial pearls and diamonds.

Andy Warhol had a full set of cutlery that he'd stolen from Concorde (or which, perhaps, someone had nicked as a present for him).

In 2013 two Russian multimillionaires in a London club competed to see who could spend more on drinks. In just three hours they went through £131,000 worth - 55 Magnums of Cristal, 96 bottles of Dom Perignon (at £325 each), uncounted cocktails, two magnums of vodka and two bottles of Chivas Regal. This was only a little bit over the top - not uncommon for a group of men to work their way through £123,000 bottle of 55-year old Glenfiddich in an evening.

In 1950's America a cup of coffee cost a dime. Today it is both a commodity and a luxury. You either pay a premium at a coffee shop or buy a flash Italian coffee maker with pricey refills.

Australian born country girl Sheila Chisholme (later Lady Millbank) married an earl, a baronet and a Russian prince, then opened an exclusive travel agency inside Harrods when she ran out of money in later life.

Books by Title

Books by Author

Books by Topic

Bits of Books To Impress